Saturday, 25 June 2011

Censorship - Stupid, Confusing, Necessary(?)

I've been meaning to write about this for a while. As you may (or may not) know the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has refused to give a rating to "The Human Centipede II: The Full Sequence", for home entertainment release. It can still be shown in cinemas, at the cinema owner's discretion, but it can't be released on DVD or Blu-ray for home use in Britain, as it has no age rating. The full statement of why they made the decision is here, and reveals a lot of the plot in the process. Their general reason boils down to that it combines a sexual element with torture, and could thereby be "harmful" to viewers, as well as the possibility that it breaches the Obscene Publications Act. While I don't like the reasoning I have found I have reacted in a most unexpected way to the "banning" - I don't really care...

I have in the past been a fierce defender of freedom of speech, of all speech, no matter how repellent. I would say I am still a believer in "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". But I've found that I am beginning to question in what medium and in what way some opinions and expressions should be available in... I don't know how or when this started, only that I find that I now don't care about someone being shot down and silenced in public forums when expressing repugnant and racist/sexist viewpoints. Maybe it was the tasteless protests against dead British soldiers by a small (but loud) group of so-called Muslims (so-called, in my opinion, as what they were doing is not very Islamic) and the equally repulsive protests by the English Defence League that followed. The older I get the more I wonder; is total freedom of speech actually right?

I'll be honest and say I don't have answers to this, as my feelings and opinions change on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. But I think it has massive implications for us all and it's a shame that any discussion about freedom of speech always results in a totally partisan, my way or the highway, argument. The recent banning of Human Centipede II has been a perfect example of this. Those opposed to the ban say this is a slippery slope and that the BBFC is acting far beyond their remit. Others are saying it's about time the BBFC stood up to these "sick" films and put a stop to them being viewable in British society, and won't someone please think of the children, blah, blah, blah.

I don't think either side have it entirely right. I don't want to see a return to the ridiculous situation Britain was in with the "video nasties" era, but I don't think that would actually happen. The people in the BBFC do in fact make every effort to not refuse a certificate if they can help it. But they are limited by the law in what they can pass, especially as films become ever more realistic and ever more violent. Personally, I don't think they had a choice in this instance. The film, from the sound of it, is seriously pushing the limits of what British laws will allow to be shown, though I think it's well before time that the Obscene Publications Act be scrapped and replaced with something that actually reflects reality, and not hysteria (the very notion that seeing something that isn't real can "deprave or corrupt a significant proportion of those likely to see" it, is ridiculous.

The reasons I'm not bothered by this particular ban (or the ban of Grotesque in 2009) are;

- I don't think we lose anything if these films are not available for general distribution in the UK. They're on the internet if anyone really wants to see them, just like "2 girls, 1 cup" is also on the internet if you want to see it. (You don't)
- I believe in artistic responsibility. Okay, I know Tom Six is as much an artist as John Prescott is a stud, but he is someone who creates creative works. I think there's a certain duty in that, to entertain but to also consider the wider implications of your work. In other words, what does it mean, what does it say, what message does it send. If an artist takes responsibility for their works than they have to expect and accept the consequences. Limited distribution is just one of those consequences if you choose to push the boundaries too far.
- Lastly, and maybe most controversially, I have concerns about the effect of media that glorifies torture and puts the viewer in the shoes of torturer. For the record I do not believe in the "monkey see, monkey do" argument of the Mary Whitehouses of the world. People are far more complex than that. But, I wonder if the effects are even more insidious than that, that maybe our tolerance or acceptance of violence in general increases when you are constantly exposed to ultra-violent media. I have only anecdotal evidence for this, but I would love to see some genuine non-biased research into it.

Censorship is bad when it's total, when someone or a group of someones are not only forbidding anyone from choosing to see, read, or listen to what they want but will actually punish someone for doing so. That isn't quite what happens anymore when films are "banned" in the UK though. With so much available on the internet you also have to seriously question the point of refusal of rating by the BBFC, though I suspect they see it as refusing official sanction of a work they deem to be hideous. And, again controversially, I don't have a problem per se with a government body making a statement by refusing to legitimise something that pushes too far beyond the realms of acceptability. The problem as ever is who decides what is and isn't acceptable...

I'd prefer to see a higher rating than 18 instead of a banning of works like this if I'm totally honest. We already have R18 for hardcore pornography; why not have a R21 for everything else that doesn't fit the 18 certificate, isn't porn and shouldn't really be easily accessible in official public spaces like supermarkets and rental chains? The internet is kind of the wild west so trying to control accessibility for anything there is like trying to corral hundreds of hungry bears into a tiny shed - with only a shovel, i.e. pointless and painful. With that sort of certification we also could do something similar to Germany, where titles with the highest ratings are not allowed to be advertised, or openly displayed, and only registered sellers are allowed to stock them. You would have to ask for the title specifically, prove your age,  and then the retail monkey gives you a nod and a wink, takes your money and passes your copy of Human Centipede 5 - The Final Dissection to you in a paper bag. With maybe a small bottle of whisky tucked in there too for free. Actually, though I wrote that in jest, I'm thinking it's a great idea. Especially the whisky part.

What do you think? Is banning this film and other ultra-violent, torture porn titles like it an exercise in futility? Should freedom of speech be total and complete, or does it need checks and balances, if only to stop the crazies from hogging the floor and presenting their "opinions" as if they're valid? *cough*BNP*cough*

Answers on a postcard. Or in the comments below if you prefer.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I think there are probably two issues here - freedom of speech; and freedom of artistic impression. In terms of the latter, we had enough of this with "Lady Chatterley's" and I think we'd agree (as does the law in general) that 'anything goes' providing appropriate warnings are given - hence the BBFC.

    So in the specific instance of 'Human Centipede 2' I disagree with the ban. At the end of the day, by now, one would hardly accidentally view the film not knowing in some part the context. So were it to be released in the UK on DVD you are no more likely to watch it in ignorance than you are to see 'Evil Dead' and think it's 'Bambi 2'. That's why there are quite detailed warnings and descriptions on covers (as course, in many cases used as advertising as much as warning).

    I guess I'd equally be in favour of any form of material being available legally. As you say, I'm sure I'll be able to see 'Human Centipede 2' on the internet as easily as I could see '2 Girls 1 Cup'; so banning in one form doesn't prevent viewing. However, maybe it does hint at disapproval? When content is lacking in any form of artistic merit, then what is the point of allowing it to be distributed? But then we hit the slippery slope of 'you' telling 'me' what is of artistic merit. And then there's the whole "protection of children" thing, but the state can't be a parent - it must merely make it easy for actual parents. And that's where certification comes in.

    Don't ban; advise is my view today.

    As for Freedom of Speech, then we need to permit open debate whilst not inciting to violence. Again, not easy - what might incite me to violence might not incite another. But the law decides on a case by case basis I believe. My bottom line is, I'd rather you let your mouth condemn you, rather than you having the thoughts and not being able to utter them. Bit like the old slogan - "better to keep your mouth shut and let everyone think you're an idiot, than open it and remove any doubt."

    So, for both freedoms it appears.

    However there's an interesting topical slant on this right now. I hear that Keith Allen's film 'An Unlawful Killing' (A 'Diana conspiracy/cover-up documentary') is not being permitted a UK distribution. Which is odd. I've seen clips from the film and it looks like total rubbish, for several reasons, but banning anything only increases it's notoriety (consider Clockwork Orange) so it's always counter-productive in that sense. I wonder what's behind that. I hear (Allen has an article on the matter in today's IoS) that there is a legal issue with some of the accusations levelled ... but film is film, and freedom of speech/expression unless overtly breaking the law should be defended. Banning due to claims made, is a bit like saying we need to sue the makers of 'Blair Witch' for convincing us that it was real and the actors died ..... more fool you - it's a movie. Prefixing the main action with "This is based on fact", is still a prefix inside the movie. And as such is merely there for entertainment.

    Okay ... I've wondered off the path. Silence now.